Considering all we have been through over the last 12 months, I have come to the conclusion that New Year’s resolutions are, at best, aspirational or, at worst, futile. Perhaps you thought, on December 31, 2019, that this next year was the year you would get a gym membership and exercise more consistently but after 80 days all the fitness clubs closed, and you were left a little less resolute. Or perhaps you thought you would adjust that unhealthy lifestyle and [fill in the blank] less, only to discover that it was all you had to do during the quarantine. It is painfully apparent that there is no certainty to the future.
Yet, our human nature, or perhaps our spark of divinity imbued through the Imago Dei, longs for our improvement. Therefore, the Apostle Peter writes the following to the Church:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:5-7
Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or in the center of God’s will (N.B.: these two places are not mutually exclusive), there are areas of our lives where we could be doing better. Honestly, I have learned a great deal about myself in the months of quarantine, and I recognize that there are things I desire to improve. I suppose January 1st is just as good a day to begin as any other.
Above all else, I desire this year to increase my perseverance, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”. I long to be more patient, more forbearing, more tenacious. My trouble is that perseverance is not something that a gym or a grocery store can supply. Perseverance comes through faith in the promises and providence of God over the long haul. It means, for me, delighting in the delays as part of God’s design and rejoicing in the roadblocks as they work toward my refinement. For me, I will know that I am developing perseverance when I no longer experience opposition with annoyance but with amazement.
But that is my struggle. Your struggle is likely different. Why not make an effort this year to work on what is weighing you down? If you need accountability, I am available to provide an occasional prod. If you need prayer, feel free to reach out and we can bring these concerns to God together. If you need motivation for change, simply replay the past year in your mind and marvel at how much you have adapted, adjusted, and altered because of this disease; is not your health as important? You have shown yourself to be resilient. Let the changes you make this year be on your terms. Let me encourage you to read the Bible a bit more this year, attend worship a bit more this year, practice kindness a bit more this year, and marvel at God’s goodness a bit more this year. Clearly, COVID cannot constrict the construction of your Christ-like character; become what you believe you are this year.
I am writing this post while sitting next to our Christmas tree. Typically, our tree is our final act of decorating – when the kids were younger, we did not want little hands tearing off ornaments; now that the kids are older, we did not want to visit the tree lot until everyone was home – but COVID has changed all that with tree shortages and on-line classes. Will the tree dry out and drop its needles as it occupies the Living Room for more than three weeks? It is likely, but for now, I will enjoy its familiar fragrance and its meaningful memories.
As I look at the tree, my eyes first focus on the ornaments. A few of them are pieces of foam or felt fashioned by tiny fingers, taking me back to a time when my children were a bit smaller and their wonder of Christmas was a bit larger. Most of them are commercially produced, whether they are a reflection of a “1st Christmas” (my grown or growing children all wanting their own to be placed highest and centermost) or a reminder of the year we purchased them. There is an ornament from Jeanine’s college days and there will be an ornament, I am sure, from this season of life. Each one serves as a mnemonic device of our time together.
Behind the ornaments are the lights, red and yellow and green and blue twinkles that are just bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings. Alone, these bulbs are insignificant, but putting 500 or so together casts enough light to give the room a certain glow. Unlike the ornaments, the beauty and significance of the lights are not in their individual meaning but in their collective impact: at night, just as we are retiring to bed, Jeanine and I sit by the tree, with only its light filling the room, and remark at ‘how lovely are your branches’. It serves as a mnemonic device of our beauty together.
Finally, there is gold garland that, literally and figuratively, ties all the aspects of the tree together. Wrapped around this fragile, living (and dying) evergreen is a cord of shimmering splendor. It makes this ordinary plant something special. I do not typically think about the garland, which I usually regard as a finishing afterthought to my tree decorating, but today I am in a mood to recognize its significance. I consider the garland a glimpse of Christ within the Christmas tree – a touch of royalty surrounding the rustic. This cord envelopes the earthly with the eternal and the ordinary with the extravagant. It serves as a mnemonic device of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
I appreciate the tree beside me because it reminds me of God’s blessings, God’s community, and God’s presence. Whether real or artificial – or not even a tree – I pray that there is something near you, as well, that jogs your memory of the goodness of God this Christmas.
Yesterday, our unexpected blessing, our bonus baby – a surprise to all but God – turned thirteen. My youngest, Joshua, following the faith of His savior, is now a man. If we were contemporaries of Jesus, yesterday would have been his Bar Mitzvah (bar [בר] is a Jewish-Aramaic word meaning ‘son’ and mitzvah [מצוה] is a Jewish word meaning ‘a commandment’). Joshua would have been seen not as a seventh-grader but as a “son of the commandment” – he would be responsible for keeping the Law of God. This leaves me, as his father, with a nagging question: have I done enough to prepare him for adulthood.
Thankfully, we do not live in a non-adolescent culture and Joshua will not be an adult for another 5 years (legally) or more (culturally). That said, I have been slowly realizing that how I see this boy – as my defenseless and impressionable baby and as my child in need of protection and correction – is not the way the world outside our front door sees this young man. While I would seek to isolate him from the culture of the age, the societal gates of social media have been, with the change of a date, opened to him with its beckoning siren song. In my head, I know that all these coming changes are natural and beneficial steps in his healthy maturity, but in my heart, I worry for he is still just a boy to me and his mother.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
The above-quoted verse is typically mentioned when the topic of parenting comes around. It makes sense since the command of training is good advice for new moms and dads and the promise of faithfulness is comforting during those rebellious stages. As my boy enters manhood, I ask, as I said before, if I did a good enough job training him? Ironically, that might not be the right question for the term Solomon uses for ‘train’ is not translated as ‘train’ anywhere else in the Scriptures; it is translated as “dedicate’. The four other times the Hebrew Bible uses the term חנך, it is in reference to the temple. This admonition is not, as I see it, to prepare my child for the world and hope that I have done enough, but to proclaim my child to the world and trust that he will remember who he is, and whose he is.
Today, I am wrestling with letting go of the precious blessing of my baby boy. Today, you may be struggling with letting go of another blessing. Can God be trusted to keep His word and continue to provide for His people? My friend, the answer is yes. As my son Joshua’s name declares, the Lord is salvation (or deliverance or redemption). The Lord will carry all of us who trust His promises and bring us safely through to the other side.
Happy Birthday, Joshua. Enjoy the beginning stages of adulthood. Remember who you are.
Earlier this week I walked to City Hall and filled out my ballot for the upcoming election. I have always considered it a duty and a privilege to take part in the process which determines our representatives in government. Even in local elections where only incumbents are running, unopposed, I delight in flipping that lever (when I was younger) or filling in that circle (now that I am older), making sure that my voice and my choice is heard. I encourage each person reading this post, if you are registered to vote, to likewise engage in the process and cast your ballot for the candidates of your choosing.
Professionally, I am of the opinion that my position within the local church prevents me from divulging the candidates for whom I cast my vote. Personally, my preference is to remain neutral in politics, seeing the benefits of our multi-party form of democracy as it fosters a healthy exchange of ideas. In the days following this impending election, a winner will be declared in every contested race and our towns and cities, our states and commonwealths, and our country will move forward. Our choice, each day following the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, is whether we will move forward united or move forward divided.
I, as a pastor of a small church in Boston and as a follower of Christ, am concerned with the aftermath of whatever the Electoral College determines. It is for this reason that I offer the following observations for your reflection in the days to come.
I find it worth remembering that the course of history is long and the terms for our elected officers are short. As hard as it is to imagine today, 2020 will likely be simply a footnote in the annuls of time. How many of us could recall the details of the ‘Spanish Flu’ or the name of the President in 1918-1920 (prior to Googling it during the present pandemic)? Most of today’s headlines will be the source of tough trivia questions posed by our grandchildren. We, as human beings, are resilient, and we are capable of withstanding good and bad character, good and bad economies, and good and bad votes.
I also find it worth remembering that our hope is built, ultimately, upon God’s eternal nature (which we imperfectly reflect) not the political powers of the day (which imperfectly reflect us). A foundational truth that sustains me in these days of uncertainty is this:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
Before there were people groups, religions, classes or governments, there was a male and a female who were created in the image of God. Somehow, somewhere woven among our DNA is a spark of the divine, which produces, among other things, a knowledge of moral excellence and a hunger for genuine community. It is this mysterious impartation of the Almighty that gives me hope, despite the tensions and turmoil of this present hour.
Whether or not our votes are sufficient to carry our candidates to victory, let us commit ourselves to call upon history and the heavens to grant us hope.
On Wednesday, I received a welcome piece of mail: the latest issue of GAMES: World of Puzzles magazine. I have been a fan of the periodical since I first came across it in High School (it was on the desk of my church’s youth director) and now a subscription to it has become a perennial birthday gift from my mother. Nine times a year I receive a treasure trove of crossword puzzles, word searches, logic challenges, trivia quizzes and a variety of other games. My personal favorites in the magazine are the cryptic crosswords, puzzles, admittedly an acquired taste, which combine clever wordplay with interlinking answers.
I find these pencil-and-paper puzzles relaxing and refreshing. There is something therapeutic in the fact that there is always an answer to the crossword puzzle and, given sufficient time and creative expression, the grid will eventually be completed. There is something comforting in the fact that everything is present in a word search and given enough time and attention to detail, every item can be crossed off the list. Thanks to the magazine’s editors and game designers, black lines and letters on publisher’s grade newsprint – ordinary items of no importance alone – are expertly put together to build up my vocabulary, stretch my imagination and sharpen my mental processing skills.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16 (NIV)
Perhaps we could look at the Bible in a similar way. There is nothing special about the paper or the characters; the Bible, essentially, is words on a page. But, like a crossword puzzle, these words are interlocked, intentionally intersecting with other words to create a cohesive whole. Like a crossword grid, it is complete only when the all the answers are integrated together. As we read the Bible, perhaps we could think about how the portion we are working on fits among the entries around it while we come to an understanding of what we do not know and solve the conundrum by building on what we do know. That is part of the author’s skill.
Perhaps we could look at the Bible like a word search as well. We could begin with the premise that everything we are looking for will be found and, given enough time, we can cross every item off our list. Further, as a person who has done a number of word searches in my day, I will share a secret: most of the time we will find what we are looking for on the spots occupied by nothing else. When it comes to the Bible, all that we need can be found, but it may be found in the places we rarely look. That is part of the designer’s genius.
As I read the Bible, I look for the intersections formed by what I know and what I am learning (like a crossword puzzle). As I study Scripture, I look for the things that I am told are there, though hidden in unlikely places and unusual ways (like a word search). Through it all, I am increasing my vocabulary and involving by creativity, trusting that there is a way that all these disparate bits of information form a cohesive and consistent whole. Like my magazine, life can be cryptic and puzzling, but thank God that all the answers are available somewhere in the book.
My family watches a more-than-average amount of television, and we all have our favorite shows. There is one program that we tend to watch together that elicits a great deal of conversation – “What Would You Do?”. For the uninitiated, “What Would You Do?” is a hidden camera show, produced by ABC news, where unsuspecting people are recorded as they witness a wide variety of moral and cultural dilemmas, eventually to be interviewed about their reactions by the program’s host, John Quiñones. One segment might involve a bystander’s reaction to an apparently inebriated bar patron heading for their car, while another might touch on issues of a restaurant diner’s immigration status, always leaving the viewer with the question, “What Would You Do?”
As we watch the show, and in the discussions afterward, we all give our opinions about what the proper reaction should be, thinking that, if we were there, we would be one of the good folks that would talk with John Q following the scenario. We would never be the ones who tolerate discrimination or ignore outright need. We all conclude, by the end of each episode, that we would love to be on the broadcast. We are looking forward to the day when we are visiting a diner in New Jersey, overhearing a conversation about the travesty of women’s professional sports, only to hear the voice of John Quiñones behind us, saying, “Excuse me, folks, those people are actors….”
It leaves me with a question: would we be better people if we thought our actions and reactions were being watched by others? On “What Would You Do?”, they always have people who intervene, who care enough to confront the bigotry or bad behavior demonstrated by the show’s actors. They typically also have people, often whose identities have been digitally obscured, who do nothing or, worse than inaction, are advocates for what most consider to be wrong. Watching those strong and sensitive strangers defend the defenseless or notice the needy encourages me to do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)
If you have read this blog before, you might be expecting me to remind you that God sees what you do (which is true), but that is not my takeaway today. Peter reminds us that those around us see what we are doing, and that every scenario depicted on “What Would You Do?” or played out in real life is an opportunity to reflect the goodness and glory of God. When we, as followers of Christ, do the right thing – support the figurative and literal widows and orphans, care for the physically and spiritually sick, show compassion for those imprisoned by the system or by the self – we tell all those around us that God loves, and by extension we love, the broken and bruised. Whether it is broadcast on national television or not, we are always right to address wrong.
I would still like to one day be on the show. Until then, I will imagine that there are hidden cameras when I overhear absurdity or observe abject poverty. What would you do?
During the past few months as we have been at home together, my family has been watching more syndicated game shows than usual. Many of these shows (e.g. “25 Words or Less”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”) grant to the non-winners what is commonly referred to as a ‘consolation prize’, a parting gift given with the intention of lessening the blow of losing the game. These gifts might be as small as a gift certificate to Lobster Gram® or as substantial as a few thousand dollars. After thirty minutes of hard work, it is good to know that no one walks away empty handed.
“Consolation” is an interesting word to me. It is derived from a Latin prefix and root combination which originally meant ‘to soothe with” (the prefix ‘con’ and the root ‘solari’, from which we get the English word solace). In our cultural context, consolation is the comfort we receive by others after a loss or disappointment. When we offer consolation, we are giving someone else – either with words or actions – something like a balm or a salve in order to lessen the sting of loss. Consolation, in my mind, is somewhat akin to applying aloe vera to a bad sunburn.
During this pandemic, I have received consolation from an unlikely source: the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” by biblical scholars due to all the difficulties he encounters while serving God. For the past two months, we have been discussing this book of the Bible during our on-line study and we have read about Jeremiah being mocked, beaten, dropped into a muddy well to die, imprisoned and impugned. Most of the book recounts hardship after hardship for our messenger of God. However, during this litany of crushing disappointments, there is a section (chapters 31-33) that commentators call “The Book of Consolation”.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” Jeremiah 31:31 (NIV)
Because of their disobedience and disregard for God, the people of Jerusalem were about to be displaced by the Babylonians. Because of their sin, they were going to suffer. But this suffering would only be for a season (albeit an extremely long season of seventy years). The coming generations would be restored and renewed. God promised through His word. The people would return to Jerusalem and God’s blessings would be reinstated. “The days are coming….”
We, too, can be consoled and soothed with the reality that “the days are coming” when God will make all things right. The good news for us is that the new covenant has already been made, through the blood of God the Son, so that all who call upon Him in faith shall be saved. The good news for us is that God has begun the process of restoration by allowing us the opportunity to be in good relationship with Him, through Christ, and that He who has begun this good work will be faithful to complete it. May we all find consolation in that, even though we may be also enduring disappointment and loss.
It is amazing how fast time flies! This weekend, for half of my children, will mark the end of Summer and school vacation. My daughter will begin her new school year (teaching remotely 443 miles from her 5th grade students) on Monday and my middle son will move into his on-campus apartment for the Fall semester on Wednesday. Our youngest son has been blessed with an academic reprieve, for his remote learning classes will not resume for another three weeks.
In many ways it seems like forever since David came home – theoretically for his freshman year’s Spring break – on March 5th, since 6th grade classes moved on-line for Joshua beginning March 16th, and since Rebekah’s truncated senior year of college and student teaching moved to remote and she drove home from Washington on March 17th. As an added blessing, throughout the Spring and Summer we have also seen our oldest son an average of twice a week. I cannot imagine another season of life when we will have this much shared time together. But now, the times, they are a-changing. The passage from August to September, for me this year, will be bitter-sweet.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: […] a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV)
As I contemplate the change of season – meteorological and metaphorical – it causes me to pause and posit what the coming days may bring. What will be the activity of this new time and season: weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing? Are the days to be filled with disaster or delight, or some combination of both? My guess: as it has been over the first 240 days of 2020, it will be for its remaining 126. There have been and there will be those whose days, like mine, are filled with more laughter than tears and there are those whose days are filled with just the opposite.
Each of us have differing experiences and unique contexts in which we navigate the challenges and charms this life has to offer. Because of this reality, we must allow empathy, the ability to feel for another without feeling as another, to be our guide when interacting with one another. We all have grieved a loss (of life, of livelihood or of liberty) at some point this year and we all have needed compassion. We all have enjoyed a blessing (through nature, through new life, or through neighbors) during this pandemic and we all have appreciated companionship. Each of us will also continue to shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy in September and beyond, and we all must allow others the space to express themselves, unrestrained, before us.
The coming days, for me, will be tough as we transition from life fully together toward life beginning to move us apart. The coming days, for you, are likely to be different emotionally. I am glad we have each other as we rejoice together and as we grieve together. There is a time for everything, just like the weather in New England. If you are unhappy with what is occurring around you, just wait a minute with a friend.
I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.